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Power and Meaning Making in an EAP Classroom ( Chun, Christian, 2015)

Reviewed by Debrorah Clarke

4 June 2015

This powerful book speaks to EAP teachers, disillusioned with their role as educators, and researchers frustrated by the difficulty in embedding pedagogic theory in the EAP curriculum.  Chun achieves this voice through both his discussion of key political, social and cultural issues found in everyday life and his account of his collaboration with an EAP teacher.  Taking emerging themes from the lessons he observes over three terms, he offers alternative ways of teaching content and skills that draw upon pedagogic research stemming from critical theory and systemic functional linguistics. For the reader, there appears to be two actors in the text: the writer, who employs Mediated Discourse Analysis to share his findings with us, and the teacher who, if she were writing down her reflections, would, potentially, be engaging in a form of Action Research.  The extracts of the meetings they have and the lessons she delivers are reported verbatim which provide a neat demonstration of the development of the EAP teacher and also the divide that can exist between theory and praxis.

In the first chapter, we are presented with the main issues that Chun wishes to address in his book: the ability of students to deal with texts when they have not had access to social and cultural materials, how teachers help students to make sense of discourse and resources and how the EAP classroom can facilitate deeper and more productive engagement with texts for both teachers and students.  He includes the role of the teacher in these issues because he has observed how multimodal resources, such as video and blogs, have provided opportunities for making meaning of ideas and information more accessible and how social, cultural and political content is no longer exclusive to written texts.  Chun highlights how EAP, in general, has difficulty staying abreast of this.  Whilst many EAP teachers may incorporate video into their lessons as a tool to engage students with teaching materials, it is hard not to agree with Chun that opportunities for deeper engagement may not be fully exploited.

Difficulties with student engagement are a point of discussion in both chapters one and two.  A familiar classroom scene is illustrated, in which particular students act provocatively and upset the dynamics of the classroom leading to the display of agreed handwritten classroom rules and other notices.  Chun does not comment on these classroom management techniques but instead suggests a different approach to engaging students arguing for a pivotal role for critical pedagogy in the EAP classroom. He highlights the EAP debate of pragmatics to access academic learning versus critical pedagogy to facilitate learning.  Chun strongly believes in critical pedagogy to develop academic literacy through exposure to the political, social and cultural content in texts that can be questioned and explored in the classroom.  He embeds ‘critical’ in notions of everyday thinking and common sense and, for him, the everyday is a ‘subject rather than an object of social organisation’ (p.6).  Since he perceives the EAP classroom as a site of power and also a space for ‘creative, dialogic and dialectal interactions’ (p.7), critical approaches and practices can be justified.

Having been an EAP teacher for twenty years, Chun is careful not to be overly critical of the shortcomings of the EAP sector.  He discusses the impact of the neoliberal framework, within which the EAP provision exists in North America, on teachers in terms of job security, teacher motivation and access to professional development.  His description resonates with the UK model of EAP education that also increasingly exists within a neoliberal framework.  We are reminded of this when he discusses the selection of materials and, more specifically published materials which are intentionally politically ‘neutral’, may not replicate actual academic texts and which often take a solely pragmatic but not necessarily engaging approach to teaching EAP.  Reading this discussion awakens the realisation that ELT course books seem to indoctrinate teachers – who can be self-reflexive but are extremely busy – into particular beliefs about how we learn academic English and skills in order to support market demand for ELT course books.

To broach the shortfall in critical approaches, researcher and teacher employ functional grammar and critical literacy to assist in the navigation and understanding of academic texts.  To exemplify, Chun highlights the political use of nominalisation in academic texts in the way that it can remove human agency and how highlighting this can be employed to heighten students’ language awareness and permit them to ‘read against the text’.  Throughout chapters three to six, we have the privilege of witnessing the development of the teacher as she incorporates functional grammar and critical literacy into her lessons. This, in turn, challenges us to reflect on our own practice.

The themes of chapters four to six are globalisation, neoliberalism and culture and identity.  These themes are dictated by the teaching materials selected by the teacher and are often requisite to the course she is teaching.  Chun begins each chapter with an illuminating discussion of the political, social and cultural aspects of the given theme before we are permitted to share in their discussions of literature they are reading together and also before observing the teacher’s lessons.  Chun’s aim to develop, through the teacher, understanding and co-construction of the meaning in the EAP classroom is met with varying success: he first observes missed opportunities, then partial success and finally success when we are shown the teacher using functional grammar to examine language choices with the students and to co-construct meaning.  However, during this process Chun concedes that adopting critical pedagogy in its entirety is demanding.  This is an important concession because as the EAP market has widened to include Foundation-year students, it is not difficult to see how, in this particular educational context, critical pedagogy could lose momentum.  Nevertheless, in the final chapter of the book, Chun argues that both the pragmatic and the critical are necessary for success in academia and, usefully, provides seven principles for practitioners who would like to enhance their teaching through critical pedagogy.

While the classroom practice of critical pedagogy varied in success and is, potentially, limited by institutional constraints, the teacher, and vicariously the reader gain from working with the researcher. The book enables us to see that although politics is considered taboo in the world of ESL, we as teachers are already politicised by our curriculum, which has an agenda by merit of the choice of topic and materials prescribed.  Furthermore, teaching the political is not teaching politics but relating the ‘everyday’ to our lived experiences which may be unappreciated due to the promotion of the psychological over the sociological construct of learning in ESL education.

Ultimately, it would seem that Chun is perhaps suggesting that without introducing critical pedagogy into the classroom, EAP and, in turn, its practitioners are increasingly becoming part of a larger ideological apparatus to forward a neoliberal agenda.

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